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Key deadline date set to halt NFL's lockout

| Thursday, July 7, 2011

NEW YORK — NFL owners and players may find themselves shifting to hurry-up mode as time gets tight to reach labor peace.

Although both sides say progress has been made in the last month of meetings in various locations, the prospect of postponing the opening of training camps grows stronger every day. Lawyers for the NFL and the players' association sorted out contract language and details Wednesday for a second straight day, hoping it could speed the process in reaching a new collective bargaining agreement.

A person with knowledge of the situation said attorneys met at a Manhattan law firm's headquarters. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because a judge has directed that details of the court-ordered mediated negotiations not be disclosed.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA chief DeMaurice Smith plan to return to the negotiations Thursday, along with several owners and players. They all know that some training camps are set to open in less than three weeks and the first exhibition game, at the Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions, is Aug. 7 in Canton, Ohio. The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears are scheduled for that game.

"Everyone's back is up against the wall," said economic consultant Dr. Jessica Horewitz, a director at Gnarus Advisors who consulted with Smith on the finer points of NFL labor before he was elected executive director of the players association. "The last few details of the contract have to be hammered out, but I believe the big issues are pretty wrapped up: the salary cap and revenue share with the players.

"I think it will be steady progress, and if we don't have something by the 15th. I don't think it will long after that."

Marc Ganis, president of Chicago-based sports business consulting firm Sportscorp Ltd., and a keen observer of the league's business side, also sees something getting done in the next week or so.

"They are now up against a hard deadline," Ganis said. "July 15 is effectively a hard deadline to make sure to get all the preseason games in. If they go beyond July 15, you likely start losing preseason games and it means less money is available overall to do a deal to satisfy both parties.

"Once you start losing real and serious money that can't be replaced, getting a deal done becomes much more difficult."

Canceling a full weekend of preseason games would cost upward of $60 million in lost revenues. That lessens the overall income for the league that the two sides are battling over. Sure, players don't get paid for the preseason (except for a per diem), but reducing the total pie certainly affects them.

Ralph Cindrich, an attorney and player agent who has been involved in every NFL labor dispute, believes neither the owners nor the players felt any motivation to close a deal until now. He cites late June and very early in July as normally a dead time in pro football, anyway.

"It is now that time when pressure has to be put on both sides," he said. "This is just too strong of a business not to find a solution. You go worldwide and spend a month overseas, you can see how we are in a fragile economy, and to mess with this successful business will have a devastating effect.

"I do see it getting done, it's too good a product not to get done. But I can see the tough owners taking it into overtime, causing a cancellation of the first preseason game."

Hall of Fame president Steve Perry has said the game is being planned to go on as scheduled on Aug. 7.

There's much more than opening up training camps and staging preseason games that must be straightened out soon. Free agency, for example. Depending on the rules, hundreds of players could become available. The longer it takes to reach a deal, the more frenzied the free agency signing period will be.

Teams still need to instruct rookies they drafted and sign rookies who were not selected in April. Those clubs with new coaches haven't been able to install offenses or defenses or learn unfamiliar playbooks.

General managers don't know what the salary cap will be; 2010 didn't have a cap.

The regular season is scheduled to begin Sept. 8 with New Orleans at Green Bay.

"They are within a range on almost everything," Ganis said, "and 48 hours of continued serious negotiations could get it done."

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